As a runner, triathlete, cyclist, and dancer I have been at both the front and back of the pack. I have come to realize where I fall depends on the size of the event and who shows up. For a large event like a regional/national competition it is going to be a lot more competitive than a small “hometown” event. I have won my age group because there were 2 of us, I have also come in 2nd to last in my age group with the same performance because there were A LOT of competitors. I have had a personal best at a race and still placed in the back of the pack for my age group and the women in the race. Not only has this happened to me in endurance sports but in ballroom dance competitions as well. I keep going out there, I keep showing up to races and dance competitions and there is a reason I do.
If a coach, fitness professional, or friend encourages you to sign up for a race and you are worried about being a back of packer, here’s why you should consider it:
Make a goal!
A race can be a goal and you do not need to be competing to win. Show up and do the work, goal met! Goals have been found to increase adherence, including adherence to training/exercise programs. Having a goal that is SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely) will increase your adherence to your training program. A race checks all these boxes. You will put a race on your calendar, count down to it and prepare for it. Not only will you complete your workouts each day, but you will have the motivation to complete those hard ones and complete them on the days when you would rather have just skipped them. A race can be a goal that is broken into smaller goals along the way as well, to further increase your self-efficacy (confidence in completing a task).
One could argue that a sport/fitness assessment can also be a goal without the commitment to a race. Absolutely. However, there is something about a race that is more effective. You pay for the race, there is a structured plan to prepare for it (hopefully), it is on a schedule day that you cannot change because “you don’t feel ready,” and you have to show up!
Races are better than assessments. There are many out there who compete against themselves, which you can do during an assessment. Having a person in front of you, or behind you, can give you that little extra push. Races give us more variety. The assessments that are considered gold standards need to be performed in a controlled way. Using a race can add variety to what can be a very mundane task. Races can assess our abilities on different terrains and environments. The true test of our physiological and psychological abilities.
Sometimes assessments test our ability on how well we take the test. The assessments that are the gold standards to test our fitness need to be performed in controlled environments. When we continuously do the same assessment, we learn how to make it work for us. If that is the case, are we really pushing ourselves to the threshold the test is looking for?
As mentioned, races can be a form of motivation. There are three types of motivation – intrinsic, extrinsic and amotivation (no motivation). Intrinsic comes from within. It’s when you perform an activity because you enjoy it. Extrinsic is external to us like a reward. For example, competition is an extrinsic reward. Not everyone is motivated by competition which may turn someone off from racing. There are other motivating factors about races that can be extrinsic or intrinsic. To note, extrinsic motivators can eventually become intrinsic, which is the goal: perform a task because you are intrinsically motivated to do so. Intrinsic motivation can also increase adherence. If extrinsic motivators go away, then motivation will decrease, whereas if motivation from within we are more likely to stick with the task/program.
So here are some other motivators for racing if competition is not one for you. These motivators are also great for those who do not think it is worth racing if they are not going to place well.
Social Support. There is a camaraderie that is hard to find in other places. This is a group of people all gathered in one spot who likes to run/swim/bike/all three just as much as you! And they like to talk about it just as much as you! No one is looking at you strangely for wearing a skintight suit, with funny looking shoes/helmet, and a bike that does not seem safe. It’s great to have someone to talk with before, during and after the race and the ability to share your experiences. I always try to make light of a miserable moment in the race when possible. I was in a race this summer where one of the competitors near me was constantly yelling out encouragement. Someone in that race (maybe the person in the back of the back or someone having a miserable day) heard that and took it to heart. That is what racing can do for you.
Spectators & Volunteers. Races have spectators and volunteers cheering you on. Many volunteers make a commitment to stay out there until the last person has gone by. When I watch an Ironman I do not get teary eyed at those coming in first, I get teary eyed watching those back of packers make it across that finish line in any way possible.
Friendly Competition. You may beat someone! Even if it is one person that is a win. Even if you are last, you beat every person who did not get off the couch to start the training. I took part in my first Zwift racing league series this past winter. After the first race I was feeling discouraged and did not want to keep participating in the weekly races. I was last in my category with no one around me at all. A few races later I beat one person!! I was so excited about that. In my last race I beat 5, and one was on our rival team. Because I had competitors around me which pushed me to one of my best bike performances recently, and the best one on Zwift. This is my point on racing, even in the back of the pack there are individuals to push you, support you, and cheer for you. I love being out there with others, and it always pushes me to keep going even when I want to give up.
On Course Support. No need to carry your hydration or food with you if you don’t want to, it is all right there!
Finish Line Party. Many races do a fantastic job with the finish line party with music, free food and sometimes free beer!
The Swag. Shirts, socks, towels, hats, etc… You start collecting so many that you have to donate, and make shirt quilts.
Medals, medals, and more medals. These are great for decorating your pain cave, office, and Christmas tree. I have been known to chase some cool medals that I needed for my collection.
If I have convinced you that back of the pack racing sounds fun, then let’s plan a race to put on your calendar. My suggestion is to find a race that is motivating to you. For example, if you find a race in a city you’d love to visit, go for it! Also consider if there is on-course support, cool swag, or a finish line party. Check the race cut off times to ensure it matches your abilities. If it’s a large race you won’t ever feel “alone” out on the course even if you are at the back of the pack. Larger races will have you feeling less “alone” even when in the back of the pack. If you need suggestions just ask, endurance athletes love talking about our favorite races.